Lives of the Rich and Famous-Vince Fumo Edition

I know, it's such a cheap and easy target...but that's the sort of mood I'm in tonight, so I wanted to have a little fun. So Vince Fumo, needing to raise money for his high-priced legal defense against the 139 count federal indictment against him for conspiracy, fraud, obstruction of justice and filing false tax returns, has decided to put his Green Street house up for sale.

Did I say house? Actually, most of the news coverage refers to it as a ‘mansion,’ and I won’t quibble with that description. Wandering through its six floors one will find six bedrooms, 10 bathrooms, 3 kitchens, a basement shooting range, roof deck, billiards room, Jacuzzi, elevator, brick oven, heated sidewalks…oh, and an underground tunnel. Perhaps this once offered an escape route from Eastern Penitentiary, and the exorbitant cost involved in extending the tunnel to some upstate Fed facility may have figured into Fumo’s decision to sell.

The coverage has offered the public a juicy voyeuristic look at the Senator’s lifestyle, and it isn’t exactly portraying him as a man of the people. We’ve learned that he bought the house he now seeks to sell for seven million bucks for only $175,000 thirteen years ago. We read about the millions of dollars in renovations and luxurious fixtures he has sunk into the house, a cost modestly attenuated by the alleged illegal use of staff to do some of the labor.

Getting these details wasn’t so easy before, as the Inquirer article points out:

The year after Fumo bought the house, as the renovation began to attract press attention, a city judge issued an unusual and apparently unprecedented order: The city could not publicize any permits and plans for the residence.

We’ve learned that the Senator doesn’t have to be worried about being homeless once he sells his mansion, since he also has a $1.1 million house down the shore at Margate, a $2 million dollar home in Ft Lauderdale, and a half million dollar farm spread in Central Pennsylvania.

When I first read this, it seemed to catch perfectly the essence of Vince Fumo: the guy has four homes to choose to sell, and he chooses to sell the one in Philadelphia, the city he’s supposed to be representing. Sort of gives the impression that Fumo first and foremost views Philadelphia as his own personal ATM machine. (And hey, isn’t that a large part of what the federal indictment alleges as well?)

But that’s not fair, is it. After all, he needs to pay some really humungous legal fees, and the Philly house is the one that will bring the biggest windfall. Plus, we now learn that his troubles are forcing him to sell his Ft. Lauderdale home as well…for $3.3 million, including furnishings and artwork. (That house has six bedrooms and five baths… damn! What is it with Fumo and this obsession with having a profusion of toilets?)

That will leave the soon to be ex-Senator (and it’s a race to see whether the voters or the Feds will be the ones to make that happen) a choice of retiring, after his term or internment, to the Jersey Shore or his Central Pennsylvania farm. I’d wager on the latter, since much of his political work seems to support the that region over the concerns of Philadelphia.

Plus, I imagine the taxes on that Green Street mansion must have been killing him. Oops, or maybe not. Seems the 2008 assessed tax for the house is only $6,611.

In a controversial vote, the Board of Revision of Taxes yesterday decided to put off until next year the reassessment of state Sen. Vincent Fumo's Green Street home, now on the market for nearly $7 million but on which the board has placed a market value of $250,000….

BRT records show that the market value of Fumo's property has not changed since 2003, when it jumped to its current level from $200,000 in 2002.

Ah, but that opens up a whole other can of worms: property assessments and taxes. And since our purpose in this diary is to just poke a little friendly joshing at Vince Fumo, maybe this is the place to end…

Side fact re: Vince Fumo's Green St. mansion

Since Sen. Fumo's mansion is on Green St., he was one of the prominent voices which scotched the chances of the new Phillies stadium being built at Broad + Spring Garden (actually more like 17th + Callohill).

-Z

Why no progressive take on property assessments and taxes?

While I understand how some like to snicker at the laughable assessed value on Senator Fumo's mansion, I don't understand why it seems that few progressives want to open up that whole other can of worms that is property assessments and taxes. The entire system of real estate tax assessment in Philadelphia is broken and in need of reform. If there were ever an issue that should appeal to progressives, this would be it as (quite clearly) the poor pay more when it comes to real estate taxes in Philadelphia. However, there has been little attention paid to the assessment mess by leading progressives. Why the progressive silence on regressive assessments?

Brett

Brett: I think that the fair

Brett:

I think that the fair value reassessment is one of the top five priorities for the Nutter administration and that it's important because:

a.) as you mentioned, the poor get hurt more by the current system
b.) the city could probably get a little more money, which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing
c.) it'd be nice if we lived in a city that used a scientific approach to governing (It's not like a top secret what fair market values are given that houses are brought and sold every day and the data is in the public records) and,
d.) basically, the system right now is letting politicians off the hook by allowing back door tax increases--which I'm not against--but our leaders should be upfront about what they are doing with tax dollars, one way or another.

If you have more reasons, why don't you write a post on it?

--Mike
Weeds in the Sidewalk

Brett, Let the Reassessments Begin

Brett:

I agree with you. I've argued here before about the abysmal status of the BRT assessments, as well as the fact that the City has made a conscious decision to leave money on the table and to impose other taxes at a higher rate by not increasing the City of the School District millage rate for years on end, which is counter to standard real estate tax policies. I would suggest that the reasons others here have not taken up the call include:

  1. Any tax that is not a business tax is viewed by many progressives as being regressive. It does not matter if the wealthier would pay a fairer share of real estate taxes if at the same time some middle class and poorer people would also pay more.
  2. Under a citywide reassessment and revaluation, there is no cap in place. There could be a scenario where properties that have not had any improvements for decades have a huge upwards reassessment and a resulting large real estate increase. In terms of politics and simple fairness, I do think that a cap of say 10 percent per year should be in place in terms of a property's taxes not increasing above 10 percent per year unless the property's reassessment was triggered by a sale or by significant improvements to the property.
  3. A lack of understanding as to the severity of the problem and to the real estate assessment and taxing mechanism and structure. The Fumo mansion article did help to illustrate this issue better though.

Two questions, when are you going to file a lawsuit in the citywide reassessment matter (as you have talked about doing), and why was the Fumo property apparently not reassessed when he did the major improvements after he purchased the property?

Citywide Reassessment Lawsuit

The issue of a citywide reassessment lawsuit is one of "when" not "if." There is no question that the system is unfair and, more important, illegal. I have been meeting with stakeholders who are very interested in fixing this system and I know that other individuals and aggrieved parties have been considering suing. To speak for our working group, we will likely meet after the general election to discuss our next steps and I would not be shocked if we make a formal decision to fund and fight this battle in the courts as that is the route most travelled when it comes to fixing this kind of problem. Understandably, politicians are reluctant to take on a fight like this because it creates winners and losers (in terms of higher or lower tax bills), so in other jurisdictions, courts have often had to order a fix.

With regard to the Fumo property and why it was not reassessed when he did improvements, it is certainly not a problem limited to this one house. The BRT has not dispassionately reassessed properties correctly and regularly -- period. Until now, they have lacked the modern Computer Assisted Mass Appraisal systems and have not collected the necessary data on properties to make a sound and legitmate estimate of property value, but they have spent a lot of public money in recent years putting in place the systems to do it right. The Fumo mansion is not the problem, it is just a very extreme illustration of the problem.

As to a post about real estate taxation Philadelphia and what is wrong with it, I would encourage those interested to visit -- http://www.philadelphiaforward.org/citywide_reassessment.

Brett

Thanks for this discussion

Despite the snarky way I ended my article here, I was in fact hoping it would spark a bit of discussion on the property tax/assessment issue. My political writing tends to the creative/framing end of the spectrum rather than the wonky policy end, so I didn't feel up to tackling the issue head-on without immersing myself in a lot of research. Besides, I thought we could all use a chuckle.

Let me make it clear: I think this issue is of extreme importance to Philadelphia. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the progressive community is silent on the issue, but it is a complex topic that cuts in several directions across multiple issues of fairness.

Thank you for the work you are doing, and for the Philadelphia Forward link you provided, which I found very helpful.

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